Mail-order Bride Industry: a Soft Version of Human Trafficking

What is Mail order bride industry?

Mail-order bride business is a multimillion-dollar industry that markets women from developing countries as potential brides to men living in developed countries. The business “is largely unregulated, unmonitored and unstudied”1. Moreover, this industry has its traces from the 19th century. It is a replication of a past practice where families from the homeland used to post pictures of potential brides to lonely men who are living in foreign countries. During the 1800s, when men travelled around the world to earn money, they, although got successful but didn’t have a company of a wife. Further, these men couldn’t find brides in the region they used to work in because of the unwelcoming nature of the indigenous people. As a result, these men advertised in newspapers and magazines for brides in Asian countries and other developing countries, including the countries they come from. Interested women used to write a mail back with their pictures. The practice was prevalent because, at that time, many women also wanted to escape their present way of living and dreaded gaining financial security. Hence, the process turned out to be an intersection of migration and marriage. 

In simple terms, mail-order brides are those women who list themselves in a catalogue and advertise as potential brides to men living in developed countries and are looking to marry women outside their region. This system works within the agency of international marriage, which intends to bring men and women from different countries together for the purposes of marriage, dating, or correspondence 2. Moreover, with time, the practice has become more prevalent and has even been joined by different agents facilitating such marriages. It has turned out to be an international matchmaking business. The role of the internet has even resurfaced this concept by increasing its reach and engaging more young women to advertise themselves. Russia and the Philippines are currently at the top for supplying such brides. However, other Asian and Pacific countries are also racing to meet this number 3. Although the issue of this industry is central where there is a considerable debate to legalize it or not, at the same time, this business is known for being a soft version of human trafficking.

Mail order bride and human trafficking

This industry is known as one of the exploitative industries in terms of human trafficking. Eventually, in most cases, these women consent to being a bride and advertise themselves. Little did they know that they would become a victim of human trafficking in future due to such practice. The primary goal of such women in marrying someone from another country is to have a decent lifestyle and ensure future security; however, this opportunity-cost benefit results in unbalancing the power structure. It is because such women become highly dependent on the men they marry, as after marriage, they become dependent on all their needs, including finances and shelter. Moreover, there are language barriers, deportation tensions and other such concerns that further shift the power to one side, putting international bride-to-be in a pretty precarious position. 

Further, it becomes challenging for the bride’s parents to care about her well-being for two reasons. Firstly, they lack the resources to do anything as their daughter is in an altogether different country. As a result, they are helpless to reach out to her. Secondly, the parents are not thorough with any mechanism to make a report in such a case, as they cannot contact her if she goes missing. Additionally, the human traffickers who have grown themselves as international marriage recruiters ensure that the victim comes from a family which lacks resources so that the fear of detection is low and they are not caught 4

Although these women are rarely trafficked into the business of prostitution; however, they are expected to take care of their husbands by doing household chores, cooking for them, and even fulfilling their sexual needs. Suzanne Jackson, associate professor of clinical law at The George Washington Law School, remarked, “International Marriage Organizations have been linked to criminal trafficking in several ways. They can be nothing more than fronts for criminal trafficking organizations, in which adults and girls are offered to the public as brides but sold privately into prostitution, forced into marriage (including marriages to men who prostitute them), or held in domestic slavery.”5

Resultantly, this version of exploitation is known as soft human trafficking because there is a pertinent grey area between human trafficking and international marriages. As a result, this is one of the most open ways of committing human trafficking. So even though a woman is doing all the work for free, she lacks the authority to go for a legal recourse because she is married, and her free service is seen as her marriageable duty or part of cohabitation.6. Anti-Trafficking international platform defines international trafficking of women as “any situation where women or girls cannot change the immediate conditions of their existence, regardless of how they got into those conditions.”7. Thus, in such cases where a consenting woman is married to a foreign husband, she must live in such conditions for years without help or aid. Even the brokers who facilitated the marriage get along with husbands in limiting the bride’s movements to take any action. 8

Legislations to tackle to problem of mail order bride

The United States has been constantly looking to monitor this problem since the late 20th century. Initially, the U.S. came with section 652 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 to tackle the problem, as the law required that mail-order bride agencies disclose information to the women they recruit. However, the law did not seem effective in directly halting the practice and had little to no effect. Nevertheless, in 2006, the United States legislature enacted the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (“IMBRA”)9as part of the reauthorisation of the Violence Against Women Act. United States Senator Maria Cantwell introduced this law to address the “growing epidemic of domestic abuse among couples who meet via international marriage brokers”.10

The aim of the law is not to prohibit the practice but to make this process rigorous with adequate focus on knowledge-sharing and generation of awareness. Before this law, marriage brokers provided sensitive and intimate information about mail-order brides to their potential clients; however, they didn’t keep such brides on equal footing by providing very little information to them. In order to provide more information to such brides about their potential husbands, this law mandated marriage brokers to follow a procedure of information collection of their clients before giving a mail-order bride’s information to a prospective client. After collecting all the information mentioned in the procedure, the agents must provide the same to mail-order bride in her primary language and seek signed and written consent from them to share their details with potential clients. Violating such a procedure is fined between $5,000 and $25,000 for each violation and/or imprisonment for up to five years. It is difficult to gauge the law’s impact as it is not restrictive in nature and is in the direction of working as a regulatory framework.

Taiwan is another country that faces a problem like the U.S., where many women from China are recruited and get married to Taiwanese men. In 2003, a law was passed in Taiwan under the known Article 89 of the Cross-Strait Relations Act11, through which the promotion of mail-order brides from mainland China through advertisements was prohibited. Marriage agencies that are found to advertise Chinese brides in Taiwan may face a fine ranging from $100,000 to $500,000. Similarly, they also made a law in 2005 to control the brides from Vietnam.

On the other hand, the Philippines as a country has faced a lot of impact due to mail order bride business. Because of high unemployment and poor wages in the Philippines, the women of that country started marrying foreign men. In order to control the same, the Philippines outlawed the mail-order bride industry by enacting Republic Act Number 6955 in the year 1990. The aim and objective of the Act, as provided, is to declare unlawful the practice of matching Filipino women for marriage to foreign nationals on a mail order basis and other similar practices, including the advertisement, publication, printing or distribution of brochures, fliers and other propaganda material 12. As a result, it was made illegal for an individual or an organisation to generate profit by matching Filipino women with foreign nationals for marriage. Even advertising the same was penalised. Further, if any person disobeys or breaks the law, such person would be subjected to six to eight years imprisonment and a fine between eight to twenty thousand pesos. 

The objective of the law was in the right direction; however, with the advancement of the internet and other technologies, the law has failed to address the problem tactfully and has coloured itself to be termed as a weak law. Firstly, the Act does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute those people who are running this business by advertising or doing financial dealings to recruit brides while sitting in different countries. Secondly, the law has not established a proper monitoring and enforcing body to address the problem. Philippines Senator Manny Villar complained that approximately ten million Filipino women have become mail-order brides over the past twenty years, despite the Philippine law forbidding the practice. 13

A similar situation is in Belarus, which is a major source of women trafficked into countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia 14. Therefore, few remedial measures were taken to prevent the women of Belarus from being trafficked. In 2004, a presidential decree was passed that required companies to use only Belarusian models in their advertising. The objective of such a decree was to encourage companies to hire Belarusian women as models so that they would not have to go abroad to find work and risk falling prey to human traffickers. 15Another measure was taken by Belarus in 2005 to tackle this problem. As a result, a decree was passed that required all agencies that send Belarusian citizens abroad for employment to be licensed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, the enforceability of this law in Belarus was questionable as many agencies didn’t even bother to comply with the law unless the country ordered a few prosecutions against such agencies. 16


In a similar manner, few other countries and international organizations have understood the gravity of the matter and are in the right direction to find a potential solution. However, the internet and technologies have made this task difficult for law enforcement agencies and policymakers because, on the internet, such traffickers and agents use the virtual shield of anonymity to do their business. Even more, they use more polite and professional ways to engage women that do not look like a conspiracy to recruit the victims of human trafficking. Further, the easiness of doing such a crime has increased because earlier, to do such business, there was a need for organized agencies, but now even an individual sitting in any part of the world can commit a crime. 

Therefore, such policymakers must work on developing a comprehensive law that can tackle the problem from its roots. Nevertheless, it should also ensure that they do not enter into the private sphere of individual lives so that they do not interfere with those marriages which are not for trafficking businesses but are actual marriages. The law should regulate the industry and closely monitor the recruitment and advertising mode of agents and human traffickers. However, it is also to be understood that those marriages which are in real arranged by international marriage brokers are not inherently immoral or necessarily a bad idea but are legitimate services. Thus, it is required to understand the problem and make an issue-specific law closely.


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